A development model for the 21st century: Addressing poverty by tackling climate change

Reducing emissions of methane, black carbon, and other short-lived climate pollutants is critical to poverty alleviation and development, and provides fast-action solutions to address climate change.

Organizations and institutions that work to improve people’s lives should take note: efforts to alleviate poverty and support social mobility and livelihoods can be bolstered by actions that mitigate climate change. More specifically, in a new Oxfam America research paper, my co-author and I assess and draw attention to the sustainable development outcomes that can arise from implementing measures that reduce climate pollutants such as methane and black carbon—so-called short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) or “super pollutants.”  

Turns out, behind the wonky jargon there is a long list of poverty fighting benefits that can be derived from super pollutant mitigation strategies. These include improved crop yields and enhanced food security; cleaner air; better health and productivity; sustainable livelihood opportunities, particularly for women; and access to cleaner sources of energy. Though by no means an exhaustive list, the paper highlights four strategies, in particular, that can support poverty alleviation imperatives and build resiliency, while reducing super pollutants and mitigating climate change:

  • Transitioning households that use biomass cookstoves to other options, such as liquid petroleum gas or electrified cooking, could nearly eliminate household black carbon pollution from cooking and reduce the labor associated with fuelwood gathering—health and well-being benefits that would largely accrue to the women and girls who are typically responsible for these activities.  
  • Adopting rice production practices that use less water, such as the System of Rice Intensification or alternate wetting and drying methods, can enhance resiliency, lower costs, and reduce methane emissions while yielding comparable amounts of grain.
  • Reducing the use of fire in agriculture to burn off crop residues through practices such as agroforestry and conservation agriculture is likely to result in farmer livelihood and soil health benefits, in addition to environmental and climate ones.
  • Deploying climate-smart cooling practices such as cool roofs and reflective pavements, and better-insulated housing infrastructure can provide multiple human health benefits while reducing the need for or improving the efficiency of air conditioning, thus lowering emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), another potent set of super pollutants.

The collective benefits of global action to rapidly reduce super pollutants could also extend far beyond a single farm or residence in a way that is critical to the fight against poverty. That’s because mitigating super pollutants reduces the rate of global warming in the near-term, potentially avoiding climate tipping points that could be calamitous for poor and vulnerable populations—those that have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis. Therefore, scaling these “climate-smart” development strategies along with actions to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, especially from developed geographies, can combat rising food insecurity and the risk of climate-induced migration and humanitarian disasters. In short, it’s not just about the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change (i.e., limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees C, with best efforts to not exceed 1.5 degrees C by end of century)—the path we take to get there matters (see figure).

Source: CCAC (2017). “Reference” refers to business as usual emissions scenarios with different mitigation pathways using early or late action on mitigation of LLGHGs (long-lived greenhouse gases, e.g., carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) and SLCPs (short-lived climate pollutants, e.g., methane, black carbon, HFCs, and tropospheric ozone). Note that the only scenarios which keep warming less than 2°C, the safe upper limit of warming, are those in which both long-lived greenhouse gases (LLGHGs) and SLCPs are reduced. However, the climate-related damage to public health, ecosystems, infrastructure, agriculture and other sectors—impacts likely to hit the poor harder—are likely to be greater if SLCPs are not reduced in near term. This figure implies that early action on both LLGHG and SLCP is the most intelligent path forward to reduce climate risks especially for poor people. (Adapted from Hottle and Damassa, 2018)

In addition, the fact that super pollutant mitigation measures typically result in multiple benefits, provides a focal point that can help break down unhelpful silos. These solutions aren’t aimed at only addressing development or climate change, or only climate resilience or mitigation, they do it all; and they potentially help bridge efforts among organizations and institutions focusing on “achieving 2 degrees C” and those that aim to provide socio-economic opportunity, justice, and voice for vulnerable communities. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, “If we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty.” These dual challenges, both rooted in inequality, are two sides of the same coin. Without looking for solutions at the edge of that coin—like super pollutant mitigation—we risk progress on both fronts.

Of course, as with any development intervention, implementation challenges and contextual caveats abound (some of which are spelled out more in our paper). In addition, actions to reduce super pollutants, like those described above, should be implemented with respect for the rights and well-being of the poor and vulnerable communities they can serve. However, with this rights-based perspective and complementary efforts to address technical, financing, and governance constraints (no small task to be sure!), initiatives that focus on super pollutants can offer win-win opportunities for people and their environment, and help make the ideals of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement a reality.  

This blog originally appeared on Oxfam's website here